January 30, 2024

New Report Spotlights How to Help Teachers Support Children’s Learning through Play

Study shares recommendations to enhance instruction and children’s learning.

While decades of studies have shown that play is crucial to children’s learning and healthy development, new research from an Education Development Center (EDC) team suggests that play may also be vital for teachers’ learning.  

When people of any age play, they experience learning that is joyful, memorable, meaningful, active, engaged, iterative, and social. Teachers have a pivotal role in using playful instruction, free play, and guided play to powerfully enhance children’s learning. Yet few teachers are prepared to do so.

As part of its research agenda focused on learning through play, the LEGO Foundation asked EDC to search the current teacher professional development landscape for strategies that can help teachers tap into the power of play. An EDC team led by research scientist Sophia Mansori reviewed studies, examined professional development programs, and interviewed teachers to illuminate current approaches and challenges. They also scanned existing instruments used to measure teacher and student outcomes from teacher professional development.

“The field of education continues to struggle with a lack of clarity around what constitutes ‘effective’ professional development, as well as which kinds of teacher learning lead to positive outcomes for students,” says Mansori. “We identified key conditions that influence teachers’ adoption of playful learning. These conditions play an important role in supporting teachers in using learning-through-play pedagogies that benefit students, as well as teacher professional development in general.”  

Mansori and her team developed recommendations for program developers and evaluators. Summarized below, these recommendations can strengthen professional development programs and advance teachers’ use of strategies that enhance students’ learning outcomes.

Recommendations for Program Developers

  • Design teacher professional development that includes playful instruction, free play, and guided play for teachers—the same techniques that support children’s playful learning.
  • Start developing programs by defining desired goals and student outcomes—and the classroom experiences that will support them.
  • Create sustained teacher professional development with specific goals for teacher practice and opportunities for collaboration and coaching.
  • Consider incorporating specific curricula and instructional materials into the teacher professional development design to increase fidelity of implementation.
  • Ensure that teacher professional development provides appropriate supports and culturally responsive practices to address internal barriers and to mitigate external inequities.

Recommendations for Evaluators

  • Have a clear definition of what change in teacher practice will look like, and build in reliable and objective methods of measuring change.
  • Identify a specific, strategic subset of student outcomes as the focus for evaluation.
  • Ensure the student outcomes that are measured align with the teacher professional development and classroom practices.
  • Consider how long it will take for indicators of change to become evident, and build that into the evaluation schedule.

Learn more about EDC’s research and evaluation work.